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The Web is not a Newspaper

If you know me, you’ve probably heard me say “The Web is not a Newspaper” before.  I won’t win any awards for this catchphrase, but it really speaks to my number one issue with institutional web presence.  I’ve discussed this briefly in my brainstorming post about modernizing the Canada Gazette. In this post, I hope to tackle various aspects of the Government of Canada’s legislative online presence and just brainstorm low-hanging fruit for improvement, or point towards other jurisdictions with great implementations.  In short, I will look at how Canadian legislation can be accessed on the web and how we might improve the experience.

The Canada Gazette is an easy place to begin this discussion as it started as a literal newspaper.  The Government of Canada’s official newspaper, the Gazette is an integrated and essential component to many Governmental processes.  Before I continue, I should start by stating the staff at the Canada Gazette are some of the most experienced, helpful, and dedicated public servants I have had the great fortune of working with in my career.  That they work on such a sheer magnitude of work product with such care and attention to detail is mind boggling.  My use of the Gazette as an example is in no way a reflection of the wonderful people who work there, but more a simple way to illustrate issues with some Government web strategies.

The Canada Gazette started in the 1940s and continued in a paper format only until 1998 when the web version was introduced.  In April 2014, the paper version was discontinued in favour of a web-only presence.  This shift to the web followed the general trend of print publications moving digital: Build an online structure which largely mimics the form and use-cases of the print publication, and done.

We’ve moved into 2015, the web is now a fact of life.  Many young adults have never lived without access to the Internet, and many would have trouble understanding why government publications do not take full advantage of what the web has to offer.  While having the ability to view a print publication online and use search capabilities is an exceptionally convenient shift forward, they would ask if this is really the best we can do.  Personally, I think we can do a lot better for Canadians.  Therefore, today, I will address some of the issues of how we post and access our legislation on the web and posit some ideas for improvement.

Legislation before the house or senate is covered on the Parliamentary website.  The Parliament of Canada moved to the web in the 1990s, initially running into problems with how to effectively disseminate and search for information on the site.  The sheer volume of information on legislation, debates and other parliamentary matters led the Library of Parliament to develop a single window into federal legislation before Parliament called LEGISINFO.  I think this is one of the great successes of the Government of Canada’s web presence.  It provides a lot of functionality in a clear and relatively easy to use format.  As bills progress through the legislative process, clear plain text summaries are added and relevant and related information is made easily accessible.

My only comment here is that it may be a bit buried for the average user.  You need to go to the Parliament of Canada’s website and look at bills before parliament. Other jurisdictions have consolidated and branded this information on a single website:

  • United Kingdom’s legislation.gov.uk
    • Provides a single window into all legislation, including drafts and regulations.
    • There are clearly marked ways to access new legislation and changes to legislation.
    • Great jurisdictional visualization.
    • Managed by the National Archives
  • The European Union’s EUR-Lex
  • The United States’ congress.gov/legislation
    • Similar to LEGSINFO in function
    • Added functionality to browse by subject
  • I cover regulatory information in more detail in my post about the Canada Gazette, but in short, the United States’ Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) runs Regulations.gov for regulations in development and RegInfo.gov for regulations under review.  These are great starting points for envisioning how we communicate regulatory information and consultation opportunities to the public. (Consulting with Canadians is a great start on this front)

For existing laws and regulations, the Department of Justice maintains the Justice Laws Website. While incredibly complete, it is lacking in advanced functionality and curation.  For example, you have to know what legislation you are looking for.  You can’t browse existing laws thematically.  You can’t compare current legislation to previous versions and isolate the differences (for this you can use canlii.org, but this could be on the official site).

I understand the need to have an official repository of legislation without interpretation or summary for legal reasons.  I believe the Department of Justice Laws website could continue to fulfill this role while the Government of Canada could introduce a Legislation specific website that combines access to the LEGISINFO system and existing laws.  It could provide a browsing experience based on popularity, themes, and strong search.  It could leverage the great clear plain text summaries produced by the Library of Parliament to make legislation more accessible.  The front page could highlight specific legislation being debated, with information about upcoming debates or committee meetings, perhaps with embedded transcripts of debates and video clips from CPAC.  Some of this role is filled by the great people at openparliament.ca, but I believe in the interest of transparency and accessibility that the Government of Canada should provide this service.

In summary, here are some of the basic changes that would serve to improve the quality and accessibility of our online legislative process:

  • Single window into all historical, current, and proposed legislation
  • Single window into all historical, current and proposed regulations, including Forward Regulatory Plans
  • Single window into all consultation opportunities (exists)
  • Plain text summaries of all legislation (mostly exists)
  • Browse by subject
  • Monitor a subject or a law (via RSS or other mechanism) (partially exists)
  • View differences between versions of legislation
  • View the status of legislation (exists for bills before Parliament)

I don’t think modernizing the way we provide access to historical, current, and proposed legislation is a particularly daunting task.  The vast majority of the content and related metadata already exists, which is how sites like OpenParliament are able to provide their services.  I think it’s just a matter of developing the the use cases and pulling together the information into a single window.  This would be the easiest first step and I think it would take us quite a long way with very low relative cost.

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